It’s strange. In comparison with a year afterward that was full of change and tension, this is one of those years that feels oddly … quiet. And really, it shouldn’t. Between the genre still trying to find its footing within a new decade and lacking a core identity as far as its sound and who its next leading artists would be were concerned, this is one of those odd years I’d describe as a calm before a storm.
Surprisingly uneventful as far as a good opener is concerned, then, but the actual music for this year provides the more interesting discussion. After all, in a year where pop-country handily wins out for me, my No.1 pick just may surprise you. As always, these lists are compiled according to what peaked within the top 20 during a given year on Billboard’s country charts. I invite you to share your own picks below! Let’s get started.
No. 10 – Rascal Flatts, “These Days” (written by Jeffrey Steele, Steve Robson, and Danny Wells)
I both am and am not surprised that this is the first time I’ve discussed Rascal Flatts for this feature. I don’t think time and hindsight has helped their legacy age particularly well, and their biggest critics are always going to point to Gary LeVox’s voice as the biggest reason they can’t stand this group …
… I don’t know, though. Maybe it’s because I grew up with the era, but I’m just mostly ambivalent toward them overall. And yet, if there’s a year where I’ll gladly sing their praises, it’s this one, with “These Days” being the first of two tracks from them here I do really like. Call it the result of the production feeling more well-blended and not as tacky-sounding as some of their later hits would be, or call it the result of a really good hook that can make up for LeVox’s lack of charisma. Or call it the result of the writing pulling from the same template as “Just to See You Smile” in putting on a brave face knowing you have to let an old lover go – and even worse, here, being caught in an awkward encounter where they’ve moved on and you still haven’t. Either way, it’s a groundhog day cycle that still sounds good today.
No. 9 – Tammy Cochran, “Life Happened” (written by Kerry Kurt Phillips and Patrick Jason Matthews)
I honestly do these features for nostalgia purposes and to remember old favorites, so it’s rare that they turn into discovery opportunities for me. But this is one of those minor hits that’s easy to let slip on by, which is a shame, because of Tammy Cochran’s few hits to ever grace the country charts, this is definitely my favorite by her. I’m not usually a fan of the songwriting template that carries a unified theme by telling a different story and/or offering a different example through each different verse (I typically prefer a more cohesive narrative, especially when the last verse feels somewhat lacking as a closer), but everyone here feels well-realized. And what gets me more anyhow is the framing – showcasing different people from different walks of life who all had big dreams and high hopes only for life to happen and for them to settle on new paths. It’s not judgmental and it’s not exactly trying to say everything worked out in the end – it’s just more even-keeled and relatable in sketching out how there’s no guarantee of what tomorrow will bring. Kind of depressingly frank, to be perfectly honest, but all the better for it.
No. 8 – Brad Paisley, “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” (written by Brad Paisley and Frank Rogers)
I just have the biggest grin on my face, and it’s not because this is one of my favorite Brad Paisley novelty cuts, it’s because of that first chorus – the perfect exhale to a delightfully slow-rolling, lazy little country song. It helps that Paisley has charisma to burn and that this doesn’t take itself the least bit seriously – the sort of track sold by a self-aware, affable goofball who knows he deserves everything coming to him, fury and fish all in one. I get why his humor doesn’t land for everyone, but I always find this to be a hilarious blast of euphoria every time I revisit it.
No. 7 – Rascal Flatts, “I’m Movin’ On” (written by Phillip White and D. Vincent Williams)
It’s the surprising highlight in their discography, as far as I’m concerned – a surprisingly spare and tasteful piano ballad with minimal acoustics and mandolin that blend well and anchor a more serious tone of moving past old regrets. Sure, it’s pretty broadly sketched in its framing and coasts on platitudes at points, but to my surprise, the element that keeps this grounded and not heavy handed or saccharine is Gary LeVox himself. It’s a rare moment of restraint for him that works in his favor, and it just may be the best song they ever recorded.
No. 6 – The Chicks, “Landslide” (written by Stevie Nicks)
There’s a lot I appreciate about this song, even beyond the fact that the Chicks turned a Fleetwood Mac staple into a legitimate country-crossover hit. It was the first moment where the trio’s harmonies really unlocked and felt like the group was based around more than just Natalie Maines’ lead – great as she was anyway, though. And it’s also a moment where all of that philosophical wanderlust and grappling with decisions made over one’s path in life really feels centralized: a quaint, lullaby-esque dream that’s just gorgeously produced and feels more like a calm before the storm – or the calm before that landslide comes in, if you will. I could draw further parallels between what this song’s message said about where their own path was headed … but that’s reading too much into what is simply just an excellent song. It’s not even their most audacious single release from this year, but we’ll get to that soon enough.
No. 5 – Keith Urban, “Somebody Like You” (written by John Shanks and Keith Urban)
I swear, Keith Urban may have been a one-trick, melodic and hook-driven pony in the 2000s, but he was a damn great one. In fact, it’s this specific feature that’s making me want to draw more comparisons to Brad Paisley than I’ve ever thought of before, just from a more distinct country-pop variety: Urban has tons of charisma and always lends his solid guitar work plenty of room to flex and breathe on his best work, and there’s a distinctly likable charm present underneath it all. Granted, whereas I think Paisley is the better songwriter, Urban is the better melodic composer, letting all that golden energy blaze into the sun here on a track about … well, not quite finding love, but hoping for it and lending a more realistic picture that it’s not guaranteed but that it could be fun to lean into that all of that wild desperation anyway and try, all with the slightest hint of darkness behind it. It’s just a purely breeze drive of passion that’s among the best of its kind for the era.
No. 4 – Alan Jackson, “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” (written by Alan Jackson)
Alan Jackson is just one of those songwriters who understands how to sketch actual people with real lived-in stories. So, when he’s actually to pull from personal experience and craft a tribute to his late father … well, of course this is an excellently moving tribute. Leave it to him to deftly present a personal childhood memory of driving with so much earnest joy that it ends up feeling wonderfully relatable. And for as much as that child-like innocence shines through in this trip down memory lane, it’s equally a song about the people in Jackson’s life who helped form those memories – from the joys of what his father taught him to what he’s able to now teach his own children. Nostalgia never shined with so radiance as it did here, a tribute with actual drive and heart to it.
No. 3 – Shania Twain, “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” (written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain)
… OK, this settles it: 2002 was the best year for huge, hook-driven pop-country songs. Talk about a sugar rush.
I’m not sure if this is my favorite Twain song simply from being her catchiest and most infectious or if the memory of watching that weird-ass music video as a toddler is implanted in my mind a little too well … and is one of my first and possibly favorite musical memories because of it. Granted, that weirdly futuristic and spacey video also is, oddly enough, I prefer the “red” version of this song to the “green” country one, though both are pretty fantastic – and considering I am, by default, forced to resort to discussing the latter, I will say the spikes of fiddle and pedal steel ensure that none of that melody ever gets lost; just enhanced. Oh, and along with being, again, Twain’s most hook-driven track ever, it’s also her most urgent. It’s a quest for love and a search for someone she may or may not have already met, but is determined to find no matter the cost because … you can only sit atop your mountain for so long before loneliness takes over. Yes, it’s fragrantly bubbly in a way that even some of her campier numbers manage to avoid, seeing as how love can be both fun and utter hell depending on the situation. But it’s Twain’s journey, and she’s so hell-bent and effervescent in her determination that you hope she does find it.
No. 2 – Tim McGraw, “Red Ragtop” (written by Jason White)
This is a song that could either be about the freedom of choice or the consequences of being forced to make a difficult decision at such a young age, depending on your perspective. Sad that it seems like an evenly more timely track for now than it did upon its release 20 years ago, but that’s the beauty of “Red Ragtop.” It showcases a young couple clearly not ready to be parents, where even though they were probably too young to know what love actually was, who could really say? At any rate, it’s an example of the strains and pressures unexpected pregnancy can place on any couple, and how either moving forward together or separately with or without that added unit can leave scars too hard to qualify or repair. It’s just, you know, nice to be able to make a choice either way. Couple great writing with a fantastically weighty, textured acoustic groove, and it’s one of McGraw’s heaviest tracks.
As always, before unveiling my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list:
Tim McGraw, “Unbroken” (written by Annie Roboff and Holly Lamar)
This is an easy one to forget when it comes to listing Tim McGraw’s most essential cuts, but call it another result of a fantastic hook and melody doing the heavy lifting for this list.
Blake Shelton, “Ol’ Red” (written by James “Bo” Bohon, Don Goodman, and Mark Sherrill)
With his level of charisma, I daresay this is on par with any other version of this song – and with a pretty great music video, to boot.
Rebecca Lynn Howard, “Forgive” (written by Trey Bruce and Rebecca Lynn Howard)
This is one of those underrated, minor-hit gems that more people remember than you’d think, and while some questionable dated production choices kept it out of my top ten, it is a gem worth hearing.
Toby Keith, “My List” (written by Tim James and Rand Bishop)
I’ll always take the deeper, introspective side of Toby Keith to what the material he’d become known for over the next two decades. Genuinely heartwarming stuff.
Carolyn Dawn Johnson, “I Don’t Want You to Go” (written by Tommy Polk and Carolyn Dawn Johnson)
I appreciate the more robust, meatier groove to this and potent sense of urgency in wanting a partner to stay.
Brooks & Dunn, “Every River” (written by Tom Littlefield, Angelo Petraglia, and Kim Richey)
I’m a bit more partial to the Kim Richey version, but the duo picked a great single here – very underrated.
Trick Pony, “Just What I Do” (written by Keith Burns and Ira Dean)
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard something so delightfully stupid.
I dig it.
And now, the No. 1 selection:
No. 1 – The Chicks, “Long Time Gone” (written by Darrell Scott)
It could scan as hypocritical of me to place this as my favorite hit song of the year. It really does live and die by that incendiary final verse, after all – a sly takedown of modern country music that, while certainly not revolutionary for this particular genre’s yin-and-yang relationship with trends, did become a surprise hit, as if country radio was so fed up with the message that they just said, “Fine, here!”
Or, you know, they couldn’t deny the Chicks’ star power and influence at this point.
But in a year that’s become of a sugary pop-country rush for me with this edition of this feature, I don’t quite see it that way. Maybe it started out as the everlasting “traditional versus contemporary” debate in the hands of writer Darrell Scott, but with the Chicks, I think it took on new meaning. After all, they certainly had their fair share of pop-country numbers that wouldn’t exactly fit in well with those Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard records. But to be featured on an album that was revolutionary by, ironically enough, downplaying the scales and showing how fresh pure, unfiltered country music could still sound in the modern era, I think it digs at the deeper heart of the matter – a lack of soul and ambition to rise above corporate expectations and satiate the artistic hunger from within. And that’s why I lied – this song is much more than that final verse. It’s unbridled, swinging bluegrass-folk with nary a drum but loads of harmonies to found around every corner, featuring a simple core story of dried-up dreams along the way. It’s the tried-and-true country music argument updated for the new century, and a sign of leadership that hasn’t been matched quite yet … and may never again, given how worse things have become.